"The 3 words I never wanted my friend to say."

How do you a help a friend with cancer?


A few weeks ago one of my nearest and dearest dropped the C bomb: “I’ve got cancer.”

Before I knew it, my gorgeous girlfriend had relocated her newly established New York lifestyle back to Sydney and had begun chemotherapy. All at the ripe old age of 25.

Even though we both live in separate countries, we visit each other regularly and talk most days. During her last few visits she had mentioned having some pain in her neck and arm.

I didn’t hear much more about this until it had escalated to a point where she wasn’t sleeping properly. She took herself (on gut instinct) to have a scan. The pain she was experiencing was in fact a tumor pressing on a nerve ending. There weren’t any other symptoms.

The journey from “I have a pain in my neck” to “you have cancer”, was short and far from sweet. Before I could blink she had endured her first round of chemo and was gearing up for much more to come. Her daily routine sounded more like that of a pin cushion in a Bangkok tailor rather than of a beautiful, successful, young woman enjoying life overseas.

Working for a cancer-related organisation, I write public education articles on the subject all day long. I can rattle off statistics like; “26,000 people are diagnosed with cancer in Hong Kong every year.” I can tell you that the most common form of cancer in women is breast cancer with approximately 8 people diagnosed every day.

But what I couldn’t tell you before is how it actually feels to have someone you love so much diagnosed with something so cruel and unforgiving. It’s a strange and difficult place to be in, trying to answer questions like ‘why her’ when there is absolutely no rhyme or reason.

It’s tough when the only thing that doesn’t discriminate is actually evil, sneaky and unwelcome. It feels similar to a 500kg weight sitting on your chest, pinning down your arms and legs while you watch a train come screaming towards you. You feel helpless.

You find yourself in a constant state of moaning “It’s not fair” but your whingeing invariably now gets you nowhere. She is still having chemo. She is still going to be tested, tired and feeling unwell.

Her diary is still going to be full of trips to the hospital, injections to promote white blood cells that cause her body to ache like an old woman, nutrition facts and figures and diet dos and don’ts, alternative therapies, complementary therapies, second opinions, head scarves and hats. For a 25 year old model living her life at Ferrari speed, this is hard to swallow.

However, on a day to day basis she fronts up to the party with the same outlook on life as she did before, with the same tenacity and resolve that would make any Taurus weak at the knees. Her motivation and her ability to look past this moment, to life beyond the present is an addictive show to watch.

“It’s the fact that she can’t physically do as much as she is used to.”

For her the most frustrating part of this ride is not the unpredictable waves of nausea, the pain, the phonebook of medical professionals that she spends her weeks hopping between, the marathon chemo sessions, the countless blood tests, the constant poking and prodding.

It’s the fact that she can’t physically do as much as she is used to.

Her life is on hold briefly and she has no other choice right now than to just suck it up and do what she has to do. For someone that struggles to sit still in a movie, this is no mean feat. Patience is a virtue that she’s never really had time to acquire.

Generally speaking I have a tendency to be quite cynical and I definitely wouldn’t say that I have a propensity to be ‘glass half full’ all the time.

However, these days whenever I find myself getting all caught up in the ‘now’ (mostly just blubbering on the couch to my partner about head scarves and treatment and “WHY HER”), something clicks in my brain and pacifies my craziness.

I am grateful.

All of a sudden I have this ability to see the forest for the trees and I find myself thanking the heavens above for that pain that kept her up at night. I am so grateful that she listened to her gut instinct, something that I often ignore.

All of a sudden I’m fist pumping for modern medicine and those smart people that spend half their lives studying to become a doctor. But most of all, just like her, I am grateful that her family and friends are there supporting her. Without this special little mixed bag of all kinds of wonderful, she might not have the opportunities and positive endings that are ahead of her. I know that, and so does she.

Every day in my job, I am preaching the importance of early detection and not ignoring the warning signs. Unfortunately as the cliché goes; you don’t actually understand the full worth of those words until something like this happens so close to home. Awareness and early detection is everything and these days, we can’t stress it enough.

I’d like to thank my beautiful friend for showing me what true strength looks like, for being someone for me to look up to and be proud of.  But also for giving me and everyone I know a wakeup call; you are not invincible. There is no such thing as ‘too young or too healthy’. Look after yourself and if you notice any abnormalities or changes in your body – get them checked out by your doctor. Cancer does not reward sticking your head in the sand.

“You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so… get on your way!” Dr. Seuss

 Emma-Louise is a writer and editor living in Hong Kong. Follow her on Twitter here and read her blog here.

How do you cope when a loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness?

Tags: friendships , health-and-wellbeing
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